That's a wiffy sounding temple
Trip Start Jun 29, 2005
235Trip End Nov 30, 2009
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My sister had advised that there is little to inspire a short or long stay here, so after a brief evening hour spent mainly in a Swedish bakery (very continental) next to a bizarre neon-lit fountain I was on my way again, heading south to Pakse and the mysterious-sounding 4,000 islands.
Overnight buses are great for saving a night's accommodation costs!
The overnight bus reached Pakse at 6.30am. Thanks to my muscle-relaxing sleeping tablets I'd slept like a log the whole night, so trekking about looking for a decent guesthouse was no problem. New friends Franck and Silke from southern Germany came too and after an additional morning's sleep we headed out to the main attraction - one of the oldest temple complexes in South East Asia, the unfortunately named Wat Phou (pron 'Poo').
The trip out was amusing, with the first vehicle ferry crossing of my adventure being a highlight. The ferry was pretty basic as one would expect from a poor country, and they jammed as many large and small vehicles onto it as they could, with pedestrian, vendors and livestock taking up any spare room left over. It was like a delicately balanced iceberg, but due to the pilot's skill and zig-zagging crablike path, we made it across without hitting other river traffic or capsizing on our own.
The Wat itself is in pretty good shape for a site that's been abandoned for 1,500 years, and was obviously very important at its time due to the extent of the site and the size of the contained structures. The facades and carvings of the lower buildings are still imposing and impressive even after all this time and wear.
At lower levels, two large lower temples face each other, divided by a 400m stretch of 'ceremonial road' which is lined with lotus bud-topped markers every three metres or so. The ceremonial road leads to the base of the older and highly sacred 'Mountain Temple', which is accessed by very steep staircases which are flanked by gnarled, spiritual frangipani trees.
Once you've struggled up the stairs, the mountain temple is pretty amazing. The carvings on the external walls are still in excellent shape and the structure itself manages to hold together despite gravity and the unusual jumble of bricks the ceiling (in particular) consists of. Someone (local monks assumably) must have to keep an eye on it and try to repair things before they get too precarious. This strategy has met with limited success if you go by the piles of bricks laying about nearby.
Other carvings in rocks and cliffs adjacent to the mountain temple are also well worth a look. If something hasn't been lost in translation from Franck and Silke's German guidebook and this blog, some of these, such as the Crocodile Stone (above centre), are 'victim stones' - places where human sacrifices were made. Not sure where that fits into Buddhism, but the place does have some Hindu flavours to it, and the two could have existed alongside each other here (like elsewhere), which may provide some explanation for ritual sacrifice in such a spiritual place.
An interesting day, all in all, especially as though one of my upcoming stops is Angkor Wat. Wat Phou pre-dates Angkor by quite some time but goes to show that the Khmers were an enlightened and busy race of people in the area throughout the Middle Ages - something history doesn't give them more than passing credit for in most cases.
A couple of other things are interesting about Pakse itself. Firstly, like most Asian nations, the Laotians are pretty nationalistic and fly their flag everywhere - on homes, public buildings, roadside flag stands and even highway rest huts in the middle of nowhere. No biggy there. What was amusing was the prevalence of old USSR flags (yellow Hammer and Sickle on a bold red background) flying proudly next to the red and blue of the Lao flag. Obviously no-one has told the local Communist government that the USSR folded years ago (the locals probably don't know either), so the communistic imagery still stands proudly as if there has been no change in the world order.
Unfortunately the old Soviet flags didn't flutter the right way for me as we cruised by so is hard to discern in the shot above. Still, they were a blast from the past and quite often they were flanked by a set of multi-coloured 'Buddha flags', as seen in other countries in the region, the end result being a conflicting mix of nationalism, ideology and theology on many a street corner and building in this otherwise ordinary town. Odd indeed.
Continuing the analysis of Communism - it's ironic that the peasantry here are quite poverty stricken whilst the city dwellers seem relatively affluent in comparison. So much for promoting the Agrarian lifestyle and class, a central pillar of extreme-left doctrine, as there are plenty of slanty shanties around here. What makes this more ironic is a comparison to Myanmar, a country never Communist in policy, but that certainly seems more Communist in reality (such as promotion and general well-being of the farming population) than Laos probably ever will be. Still, as with Myanmar, supply and demand now rules at the level of the general population, so the inexorable slide towards Capitalism continues here as well.
Finally, evidence of war is still around too, although the Loatians don't seem too hung up on this. Despite significant obstacles they're moving right along which is great to see.
Next entry -> 4,000 islands in the Mekong
Put a large lawnmower engine on the front of a ute tray, with a real long wheel base and a strange fork-like steering doover and you have this monstrosity. Much noisier and only slightly faster than a team of oxen, these are a common sight around rural areas in this part of Asia.
Surely there's a more efficient way of doing things but maybe I haven't considered all the specific needs of the market, which probably make this crazy contraption a farmer's best friend.